The National Trust Report of 1981 describes St Peters Graveyard as a

‘sanctified oasis in a highly built up industrial part of Sydney’.

Today, it is still an oasis, but in an area more residential and less industrial.

In the 19th century this so called ‘oasis’ would have been filled with sadness and great emotion as people farewelled their loved ones. Names on headstones and entries in burial registers don’t give us the story behind these names.

Death was a constant companion of every person who journeyed through the Victorian Age. The ‘Illustrated Sydney News’ wrote –

‘A casual visitor must be amazed at the number of funerals in the streets – but of what size are most of the coffins? It is the children, the little children, that are borne so thickly to the grave’.

An 1892 sexton’s plan of portion of the graveyard shows two rows of children’s graves marked out. Today they are strips of grass with no existing headstones, possibly there were never any. Two thirds of the burials at St Peters were of children under the age ten. Infants and mothers died in childbirth, others from illness.

Stanley Howard, curate at the church, wrote in December 1875 –

‘Everybody is talking about scarlet fever and many persons have good cause, not only to talk, but to weep about it. During the last three weeks I have buried five children from the parish carried off with it’.

His assistant had buried another six children. Stanley also wrote –

‘One of the saddest cases was that of one of our church wardens Mr Edward Lotze, accountant, Camden Terrace, whose family was visited some six months ago. They are in very poor circumstances and Mrs L has fifteen or twenty day pupils which greatly help them on. The little school was just reviving after that disturbance of the fever. . . . . God visited them again, that youngest and dashing child, (Marian by name) had been taken rather poorly on Thursday evening, on Friday they sent for the doctor who looked at her and said, “There’s no hope”. She died the next day. Three more were in bed with it very dangerously ill, but are now recovering’.

Charles Baber was rector at St Peters for seven years, from 1872 till 1879, before moving to All Saints, Petersham. His children Edith Mary, 6 months 16 days, and Frederick William Towers, 15 weeks 4 days are buried in the graveyard. Stanley Howard’s letters record Frederick’s death.

  • 3rd April 1877 – ‘On our trip to St Peters we saw the wonderful baby, the nurse declared it weighed fourteen pounds and it was only a few days old. Dear Mr Baber looked so pleased as he stroked his beard and eyed his new treasure’.
  • 13th July 1877 – ‘Sad news that the dear Baber’s infant had been quite suddenly taken ill and was not at all expected to live’.
  • 17th July – ‘A note from Mr Baber said he expected the child would “leave them” that day, and so he did’.
  • 18th July – ‘I went out there and helped in the funeral. It was a sweet little service. At the close they had ‘Thy will be done’ most sweetly chanted. Our dear friends were of course terribly crushed by the sudden bereavement but bore it most nobly, evidently having the Lord’s gracious presence. On the Monday of the week previous I had seen it at Mrs Campbell’s so well and strong. It was only taken ill, apparently, on the Tuesday, and passed away in five or six days. It is a sad, sad loss. That child seemed to do more than anything to give Mrs Baber a home feeling. Now it is gone, so suddenly taken away’.

Accidents caused many children’s deaths. In May 1848 A.B. Spark of Tempe House recorded in his diary –

‘I was speaking to Mrs Campbell at her cottage door when a little boy of hers, named Fleming, about three years old, was seen in the adjoining paddock with all his clothes on fire. The alarm was instantly given, and the child’s clothes stripped off, but not before he was dreadfully burnt. The shrieks and howlings from the mother and others were truly appalling’.

The inquest, held at Mr Gannon’s Union Inn, found that

‘the deceased and two other children made a fire of fern and brambles at an old stump hole, and that on its blazing up caught the frock the deceased was wearing’.

Boys who drowned included Alfred Cheeseman, Edmund Choat, Charles Slade, William Rattenbury and Alfred Speechley. The Cheeseman inquest, held at the White Horse Hotel, heard that when the seven year had not returned from school his sister went to look for him and noticed that a portion of a well had fallen in, she became suspicious. After searching the well for some time with a pole her elder brother came and recovered the body. Likewise Slade, aged eight, drowned in a well on his father’s premises, his sister saw him fall into the well and gave the alarm. Her mother and neighbours took the body out of the water but were unable to revive him. Choat, aged eleven, drowned in a waterhole about three hundred yards from his house. The Rattenbury / Speechley inquest was held at the Pulteney Hotel, Cooks River. Rattenbury, aged eleven, and Speechley, aged twelve, were drowned while bathing in Cooks River, they got out of their depth in searching for blubbers. Speechley could swim a little but Rattenbury couldn’t. The Rattenbury family were no strangers to childhood deaths, there are seven children buried in the graveyard, including premature quads.

William Hall, 14 year old son of a Newtown broom-maker, was ‘playing near his father’s house with four or five other boys when his father heard a cry which he thought was his son’s voice. He proceeded to ascertain the cause, when to his unexpressible distress he found his boy stretched out a lifeless corpse. It appears a boy Andrew Campbell was carrying a loaded gun under his arm, when by some accident or other, it exploded and the contents were received by poor Hall’. All these children lie in the graveyard, only one has a headstone.

Older people also died from accidents. James Howard, stepson of brickmaker Henry Edwards died in 1874. Stanley Howard wrote –

‘The funeral this afternoon was to come at three and did not appear until past five o’clock. It was of a young fellow who was killed yesterday, about eighteen, named James Howard, a brick carter. There was a large gathering in the church and at the grave, especially of young men’.

He had been crushed to death between two carts at the intersection of Parramatta Street, Harris Street and Regent Street, the driver of the other cart, Henry Morgan, was charged with manslaughter but was found not guilty.

Thomas Perkins, 25 years, was killed in 1875 while working at a brickyard in Macdonald Town. A bank of clay under which he was digging gave way and fell on him. Efforts were made to extricate him, in about ten minutes this was accomplished but he was dead, he had only been married two months. In 1891 Charles Emblen, a 19 year old labourer at the Warren Brickworks, Alexandria, was found an hour and a half after he had commenced work with his head over a hopper. He had died from suffocation as his mouth and nostrils were filled with loose earth.

Another brickyard death was that of Stephen Sedgemen, who at the time of his death is reported as having two jobs at the brickyards. The first was stoking the brick ovens, the other was setting gunpowder in the side of the hill, lighting the fuse and getting clear of the blast. He died as a result of one of these explosions. Three weeks before Sedgmen’s death his wife, Mary Ann, lost three of her brothers in a boating accident on Botany Bay. One of the boating party was Andrew McKechnie, who was buried in the graveyard. A group of men had decided to go fishing on 2nd June,1893. The party consisted of McKechnie, James Bennett and his ten year old son Herbert, Albert Eales, Charles Watts, and three brothers John, Thomas and Henry Turner (sons of John Turner, pioneer brickmaker). Except for McKechnie, who was a storeman at Messrs Wallach Brothers, furniture warehousemen, Sydney, all the others worked at the brickyards. Henry Turner was manager at the Carrington Works at St Peters. The day had been too wet for working so they decided to go fishing. Having hired a boat at Cooks River they proceeded to Kurnell where they had lunch. On the return trip, due to the bad weather, the boat capsized and all, except Charles Watts, were drowned. Another drowning was that of a fisherman, Samuel Bagnall. While wading in water from his boat he ran to retrieve his hat, fell, and although a good swimmer, immediately sank and was not recovered alive.

Why is Thomas Black, many years a resident of Raymond Terrace, buried at St Peters? For some years he had been noted as the largest storekeeper in Raymond Terrace, ‘six months before his death he betrayed symptoms of aberration of mind and had been placed in Mr Tucker’s private asylum (at Tempe) where he died from paralysis of the brain’. Another patient from the asylum buried at St Peters is Amelia Wilson who was found hanging in her room. She had been a patient there for two and a half years. She had made other attempts to take her life by cutting her throat, tying handkerchiefs around her throat and refusing food leading to force feeding.

What does one make of ‘Smith of Mulgunnia’ on a rectangular piece of stone? This belonged to the old family vault of Samuel Smith. ‘Mulgunnia’ is a pioneer property about forty kilometres south of Bathurst and three kilometres east of the village of Trunkey Creek. The property was originally granted to Thomas Arkell. Samuel Smith married Elizabeth Millage, who had been reared as Arkell’s daughter. Following their marriage the couple were gifted several thousand acres of land by Arkell. Samuel and Elizabeth produced fourteen children, three of these are buried at St Peters, Ada Maretta Darling, Florence Maretta Gertrude and Emma Sophia. There were two other Smith children buried in the vault, Percy William Bland and William Arkell. They were the grandchildren of Samuel Smith.

Some, not significant in their lifetime, have become important as a result of history. Susannah Sterne arrived in Sydney, in 1838, as an assisted immigrant, a niece of Edward and Margaret Riley. Edward Riley built a row of four houses in The Rocks area of Sydney, 58 – 64 Gloucester St. After the death of Edward, and then Margaret, Susannah was left numbers 62 and 64 which are now known as Susannah Place and owned by the Historic Houses Trust of N.S.W. Susannah married Charles Hensley, a Londoner who came to Australia in 1818. After an initial interest in whaling he opened a bakery in Clarence St, later at 43 York St South. Retiring from business he settled in the ‘country’ at Botany. He was one of the founders of St Matthews C of E Botany.

Thomas Petty (Petit in register), hotel keeper, died at his residence at Church Hill. Although Petit died in 1847, the name ‘Petty’s Hotel’ remained for over a century. In1893 a local connection, Mrs William Gannon, was proprietress of the hotel, described as being

‘unsurpassed by that of any other in Sydney for Comfort, Privacy. Convenience and Healthy Situation’.

Aphrasia Raymond was the daughter of James Raymond, first Postmaster-General of NSW. After marrying John Maughan in 1852 she made the trek over the Blue Mountains to be the first mistress of ‘Dundullimal’, a house made of timber slabs, now a National Trust property. The village of Dubbo, just within sight of the homestead, was then only four years old. Aphrasia and her husband lie in the Maughan family vault next to the Raymond one.

Elizabeth Howard, with not even a headstone to mark her burial spot, would never have dreamed that her great, great grandson would become prime minister of Australia.

The Hanslow family must be noted as having given their children names to confuse those tracing their family history. Peter Hanslow was convicted of stealing a quantity of wick yarn and sentenced to seven years transportation. Freed from servitude his main occupation was that of innkeeper. The names of two of his sons were Florence George Chippendale and Sydney Sarah Nancy. Florence George Chippendale, has his name carved on the headstone but is not buried in graveyard as he died in 1936 after the graveyard closed.

Some funerals were impressive, some disastrous and others didn’t eventuate as planned. Stanley Howard’s letters give us illustrations of these.

  • The impressive – Henry Edwards, a hawker was convicted and sentenced to seven years transportation for picking pockets. He arrived in Australia in 1834, a twenty two year old convict. He married Mary Ann Tye, a sixteen year old free settler, at Christ Church, St Laurence. A month before he was married he had received his Certificate of Freedom. Mary and Henry had twelve children. They lived in Glebe before moving to Newtown, later St Peters. In 1857 Henry Edwards signed a statement in the front of his Bible ‘Against drinking any kind of intoxicating drinks except as medicine’. Apparently Henry’s mother was a Wesleyan Methodist but Henry had ‘gone astray’ until about 1852 when he attended an open-air service at Glebe. At this service ‘the backslider came home to His Saviour’. From this time on he was a member of the Wesleyan Church at Glebe and then the Primitive Methodist Church in May St, St Peters. He became a well respected citizen. Mary Ann died in 1868, in 1869 he married a widow, Eliza Goodsell Howard with eight children. They had four daughters. Henry owned several properties in the St Peters area. He was a brick manufacturer in his later years. Stanley wrote:

    ‘At 3 p.m. on Thursday, 2nd September, 1891, his coffin, covered with flowers, was carried from his home in Cooks River Road to the Primitive Methodist Church by twelve of his former employees. Leading the procession were eleven clergymen and then Henry’s thirty five grandchildren and great grandchildren, all carrying floral wreaths. Immediately following the coffin were his wife and eighteen of his immediate family. These people were followed by two hundred mourners. After a service at the church the cortege moved to the burial ground at St Peters Churchyard for the internment of his remains’.

  • The disastrous –

    ‘Tuesday, October 14th, 1873. Ann Longman, 47 years, widow, died yesterday and is to be buried here. They are too poor to raise any necessary funds so that falls mostly to my share of work.

    Wednesday, October 15th, 1873. My first funeral alone and rendered very unpleasant by two circumstances. One being that the grave was too small and the process of enlarging it as we stood there, then using force before the right place was reached. I cannot help mentioning this for it shows the strange views ignorant people take, for the man (the son) told me afterwards that they were all so pleased with the coffin,“Why it was big enough for two and we got it for £2 and that gilt on it and all!” The other fact was the extravagant expressions of grief from a daughter-in-law, who had so often shown a considerable longing to get rid of the old mother who was a great encumbrance’.

  • The non-event –

    ‘ Tuesday, October 21st. Today at noon a person, James King, storekeeper, Towns Wharf, called about his wife Adelaide Rachel, nee Knight, being buried in the family vault. He was rather a common looking man, smelt very strongly of the ‘obnoxious weed’, but had evidently been accustomed at one time to some sort of higher society than that to which he appeared to belong at the present. The funeral was arranged for the next day. He was not a parishioner. I went with him on my way to Sydney to see the sexton about fees etc, to my surprise and disgust he objected in the most offensive language to pay such an exorbitant amount. ‘The Church “was a swindle”, religion was a “swindle” the same (with elegant epithets prefixed to that sweet soothing word). He had refused to pay for the last burial and he would not pay for this. Not knowing how much power I had to act one way or the other, and as the man threatened all sorts of things, I took him to one of the church wardens in Sydney, who informed me that he knew the man and he was “no better that he ought to be”. He referred me to another of the church wardens, but on suggesting this to my friend he said,

    “l’m not to run about any more. I shall bring the corpse out there, as I have arranged with my undertaker, and we’ll see if they stop my putting it in the vault. But I won’t pay the fees and if no one will read the service I’ll do it myself”.

    He went away “gnashing” his teeth with rage. That was the last I saw of him. We found from the undertaker he had changed the order for Haslem’s Creek Cemetery’.

The most colourful family in the graveyard would have to be the Hiltons. Elizabeth Hilton was married to Joseph, known as ‘Joe the basket maker’, of Cooks River. Both had arrived in Australia as convicts. In 1841, they lived on land known as Nobbs Flat, near today’s Wardell Road Bridge, where they had a market garden. After the Cooks River Dam was built, Joseph Hilton kept boats for hire and had a house near Cooks River Road – but he was better known as the pugnacious individual who offered to match himself, his dog, his cock or his wife, against any other in the colony. It was inadvisable for anyone in the colony to accept the challenge from Mrs Hilton as the following extract shows –

‘Mrs Hilton is a tall, powerful woman, whose face outvies in colours those of a round of spiced beef. Her nose has a very aristocratic tendency to climb between her eyes. ….Mrs Hilton displayed her buffalo-like dimensions in the witness box, to complain of Mr M. Gannon, the well known inn keeper of Cooks River, and also of his son William Gannon, for assault and battery. The basketmaker’s wife was rigged out in a style that completely overtopped the smartest midnight rover in Pitt Street. Her slate coloured satin bonnet was adorned with a complete resemblance of a fruit and flower garden…..her gown was of a bright damask and black carpet pattern. Her mantle shone like a nigger’s well-oiled skin, and her colours – her fighting colours – nailed to her masthead were red, white, pink, black, green and yellow’.

This extract came from the sporting newspaper ‘Bell’s Life of Sydney’ (8th Oct, 1853, p3) which took great delight in reporting amusing court cases, The Hilton family was a favourite with the readers and appeared regularly, Elizabeth Hilton was known as ‘the Fighting Hen of Cooks River’. Joseph Hilton boasted that he intended to live till 125, but one morning was found dead at the post of a gas lamp, having failed to live as long as he intended, he was 78 years old.

The alpha and omega of the graveyard. The first burial was of John Benfield, a soldier, who arrived in Australia in 1826 as a member of the 39th Regiment of Foot with his wife and one daughter. After his discharge from the regiment the family lived in the Peakhurst area. He died on 2nd March 1839 leaving a wife and six children. Interestingly the graveyard was not consecrated till December 1840. The last burial was Sarah Ann Sargent, the step-daughter of William Cook, one time licensee of the Pulteney Hotel, Cooks River. Her husband, Joseph, who predeceased her, had been a storekeeper and produce merchant. Her death is recorded as being due to heart failure, gastro-enteritis (13 days) and alcoholism ( 7 months). She was buried in the grave of her mother Mary Ann Cook (formerly Canham) and step-father.

Wandering through this ‘oasis’ one should not just read the names but reflect on the stories behind the names.


‘Bell’s Life of Sydney’ 8 Oct 1853
Burial Register, St Peters Church, Cooks River
Cooks Australasian Travellers’ Gazette, 1893
‘Grave Reflections’- Laurel Horton
Illustrated Sydney News, 13 May 1854
Information supplied by individual families
Maitland Mercury, 6.4.1871
‘No Memorial’- Dan Hunt
NSW State Records
Sands Directories
‘Stanley, a young man’s colonial experience’ edited by Laurel Horton
Sydney Morning Herald, 1839 – 1896
‘The Respectable Sydney Merchant’ A.B. Spark of Tempe’ – Abbot & Little